Diplomats say resignations over Balkans policy reflect State Department malaise

August 26, 1993|By Steven A. Holmes | Steven A. Holmes,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- It was the kind of gut-wrenching cable that came across Jon Western's State Department desk every day for virtually a whole year: a 9-year-old Muslim girl raped by Serbian fighters, then left in a pool of blood while her parents watched helplessly from behind a fence for two days before she died.

It was the kind of cable that led Mr. Western earlier this month to quit his job as an Eastern Europe analyst out of frustration with what he considered America's lack of resolve in solving the Bosnian crisis.

"The whole thing has been very demoralizing and very depressing," said Mr. Western, a soft-spoken man whose boyish features belie his age of 30.

"I found myself walking home every night just angry and bitter. My wife could tell you of my large mood swings. You can't read through the accounts of atrocities on a daily basis, add them up and see what's happening and not be overwhelmed. It calls into question your morality."

Mr. Western is one of four mid-level staff members who have quit the State Department in the past year to protest U.S. policy towards the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, saying they could no longer countenance a policy they feel rewards Serbian aggression.

Three of the dissidents -- Mr. Western, Mr. Walker, and George Kenney, who quit last year -- spoke in a joint interview yesterday about their experiences at the State Department and about why they oppose current policy towards Bosnia. A fourth, Marshall Harris, a one-time leader of the dissidents at the State Department, could not attend the group session, but was interviewed later by telephone.

The four said in interviews yesterday that their actions were symbolic of a larger malaise within the State Department over U.S. policy on the Balkans.

"The dissent is not confined to the European bureau," said Mr. Western. "I've covered or been associated with the Yugoslav issue since the outbreak of hostilities. In my time, I have met one, possibly two people, in the department below the level of assistant secretary who believe in the policy."

Stephen Walker, the Croatian desk officer who resigned this week, also said that anger runs deep within the State Department. After word swept the building that he too was quitting in protest, Mr. Walker said he was approached by numerous colleagues "who said they agreed with my frustrations with the policy."

The three diplomats who quit recently said they feel that others would resign if they were not encumbered by family responsibilities. "The four of us are young," said Mr. Western. "That affords a certain luxury of being able to make the jump. We don't have all the commitments and responsibilities to family. We're not 20 years into a career."

State Department officials reacted testily when Mr. Harris quit, the first of the most recent spate of resignations. Some officials emphasized his youth and low ranking in the department and suggested that he was quitting because he was not involved more in policy-making.

Such comments caused anger within the department, and after the resignations of Mr. Western and Mr. Walker, officials have gone out of their way to say that resignation is an honorable form of protest.

Dissent within the government's foreign policy apparatus over high-profile and contentious issues is nothing new, and neither are such resignations. Cyrus R. Vance quit as secretary of state in 1980 to show his disagreement over President Jimmy Carter's decision to attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran. Tony Lake, the present national security adviser, was one of 10 National Security Council staff members who resigned in 1969 and 1970 over the Vietnam War.

But virtually everyone at the State Department agrees that there have not been such public protests by those given the task of carrying out a policy since the height of the Vietnam War.

"This administration has used and manipulated the media and public opinion on Bosnia," Mr. Harris said, "and so we should not hesitate to protest publicly and make our views heard."

Ironically, the resignations come at a time when even they admit that the State Department under Mr. Christopher has become more open in allowing staff members to express dissenting views than during the tenure of James A. Baker III, who virtually cut out the department's career professionals from policy-making.

But the three who just resigned say that while they and others in the State Department who agree with them can express dissatisfaction internally, there seems to be little change in the policy.

The dissidents cited a news conference given by Mr. Christopher on July 21 as the low point. While Serbian forces were intensifying their siege of Sarajevo, the secretary told reporters that the United States was doing all that it could consistent with its national interest.

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